Commencement 2017: Rosalie Abella reminds graduates to stand up for justice

The Canadian Supreme Court Justice delivered the keynote address at Brandeis' 66th Commencement

Photo/Mike Lovett

Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella address the Commencement crowd.

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Commencement 2017 coverage:

Video: Rosalie Silberman Abella delivers keynote address

Video: Brandeis Commencement 2017

Photos: Brandeis University's 66th Commencement Exercises

Retiring historian David Hackett Fischer takes the long view

Computer scientist Leslie Lamport to grads: If you can’t write, it won’t compute

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's letter to honorary degree recipients

Photos: These magnificent mortarboards were at the top of their class

Video: Brandeis President Ronald Liebowitz's Commencement speech

Video: Larry Kanarek ’76, chair of Brandeis Board of Trustees, addresses graduates

Video: Vivekanand Vimal, PhD'17, speaks at Brandeis Commencement

Video: Mercedes Hall '17 speaks at Commencement

Video: Morissa Ariel Pepose '17 sings the 'Star-Spangled Banner'

Heller School Commencement 2017: “We are ready to change the world”

Brandeis IBS celebrates Commencement 2017

Congratulations to the Brandeis GPS class of 2017

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In a powerful Commencement speech, Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella urged the Brandeis Class of 2017 graduates to fight injustice wherever it arises.

“You see before you a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada who is deeply worried about the state of justice in the world,” Abella told the audience, before recounting her family’s harrowing personal story in World War II and its impact on her. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Abella was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany and grew up to become an international legal expert in human rights.

“Here we are in 2017, watching ‘never again’ turn into to ‘again and again,’ and watching that wonderful democratic consensus fragment, shattered by narcissistic populism, an unhealthy tolerance for intolerance, a cavalier indifference to equality, a deliberate amnesia about the instruments and values of democracy, and a shocking disrespect for the borders between power and its independent adjudicators like the press and the courts,” she said to fervent applause.

Abella addressed 904 bachelor’s-degree recipients and 884 graduate-degree recipients at Brandeis University’s 66th Commencement ceremony May 21. Thousands of friends and family members gathered inside Gosman Sports and Convocation Center to celebrate the graduating class on a sunny spring day on the Brandeis campus.

In addition to Abella, honorary degrees were conferred upon computer scientist Leslie Lamport, MA’63, PhD’72; former interim Brandeis president and current Provost Lisa M. Lynch; former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick; and Barry Shrage, president of CJP (Combined Jewish Philanthropies). Abella said her honorary degree felt particularly meaningful because it came from “a university [my father] venerated.”

Before the Second World War, Abella's father was a promising law school graduate; after the war, the United States government hired him to create legal services for displaced persons in the Allied Zone. But several years later, when Abella was 4 years old and her parents sought to immigrate to Canada from Germany, her father was told lawyers were not needed. He was eventually permitted entry as a tailor's cutter and a shepherd.

After arriving in Canada, he sought to find out what it would take to become a lawyer, only to learn that noncitizens were not eligible to become lawyers. The five years it would take to gain citizenship was too long when he had a family to support, so he became an insurance agent instead.

“The moment I heard that story as a child, of my father not being able to become a lawyer, was the moment I decided to become one,” she said. “I had no idea what being a lawyer meant. But I did have an idea that I wanted to carry on what I thought he was unfairly prevented from doing.”

Abella went on to an illustrious career as a lawyer, and was appointed to Canada's Supreme Court in 2004, the first Jewish woman to be appointed to that nation’s highest court.

“We have a particular duty to wear our identities with pride, to promise our children that we will do everything humanly possible to keep the world safer for them than it was for their grandparents,” Abella told the graduates. “A world where all children, regardless of race, color religion or gender can wear their identities with dignity, with pride and in peace.”

In his first Commencement address as Brandeis President, Ron Liebowitz asked the graduating class to stand up and applaud their families and friends. Then he singled out one family member for recognition: Andrew Burian, who came to see his grandson, Jordan Anhalt '17, receive his diploma. A Holocaust survivor who was separated from his family and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau at age 13, Burian survived death marches and transfers in cattle cars to multiple concentration camps.

"Mr. Burian is, for our graduates today and for all of us, an exemplar of perseverance, courage, and the belief in the good of people, despite witnessing firsthand humanity’s capacity for inexplicable evil," Liebowitz said.

Liebowitz, who became president last July 1, remarked how much he has learned about the Brandeis community during his first year on campus, including the academic focus, ambition and achievement of students who often double major and double minor.

"Students told me the double/double thing is a Brandeis badge of honor. Maybe so," he said. "But more than that, I have come to see it as an accurate reflection of the intense and rich education that you, the Class of 2017, have received and which will serve you for a lifetime. It is an education that should give you all the confidence you need to continue the intense pursuit of knowledge and contributions to society that have been hallmarks for generations of Brandeisians who preceded you."

The main Commencement ceremony also featured speeches by Mercedes Hall '17 and Vivek Vimal, PhD'17, who were both selected to speak by a student vote.

Hall placed a hat with the logo of her hometown Chicago Bulls atop the lectern, and gave a speech inspired by basketball. She told her classmates that Brandeis had prepared them well for the world, but that they should be prepared to face challenges and opposition as they embark into unfamiliar territory.

"When we leave the comfort of a place we have grown attached to for years, it may seem difficult to handle every defender attempting to block our shots," she said. "But we must never let it make us fearful of playing the game as hard as we have been taught to play."

Vimal, a former Waltham high-school teacher who has been working in Brandeis’ Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Lab studying gravitational cues and how humans learn to balance, gave an exuberant speech in which he said that America's “greatest asset is not fracking oil but rather friendshipping humans.” He implored his fellow graduates to bring together people with opposing views and ideas.

"How can we unite a divided world? It seems impossible and yet we have already begun, because within this auditorium, this 'a-gymnatorium,' we have people from nearly all nations sitting united together as a singular family bathed in collective happiness,” he said. “All that we need to do is grasp and nurture these connections and never let go."

In other diploma ceremonies Sunday, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences awarded 230 degrees, including 66 doctoral degrees; the Heller School for Social Policy and Management awarded 266 degrees and 15 doctorates; the Rabb School of Continuing Studies bestowed 112 degrees; and Brandeis International Business School bestowed 158 degrees and five doctorates.

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